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Exercise Program Can Restore Heart Muscle Health

Researcher calls exercise program a "prescription for life."

Good news for people who have delayed starting a training program. If the following exercise regimen is begun before age 65, studies show that the heart muscle can regain elasticity, reversing stiffening that can develop from lack of physical activity. Cardiologists from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Resources in Dallas have been studying how to promote health and elasticity of the heart muscle.

“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past 5 years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life,” said principal investigator Benjamin Levine, MD, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern. “I think people should be able to do this as part of their personal hygiene—just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”

Studies show that to improve heart muscle health, the following activities should be performed a minimum of four to five times a week for at least 30 minutes, not including the warmup and cooldown:

  • one 30-minute high-intensity interval training session, such as a “4 x 4” that includes a 4-minute cardiovascular interval followed by 3 minutes of recovery, repeated 4 times
  • one low-intensity recovery session on the day after the HIIT session
  • one 1-hour moderate-intensity session, such as tennis, aerobic dancing, walking or biking
  • one or two weekly strength training sessions using weights or exercise machines on a separate days from, or after, the endurance sessions

Levine noted that sedentary aging can lead to a stiffening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle, the chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood back out to the body. “When the muscle stiffens, you get high pressure and the heart chamber doesn’t fill as well with blood. In its most severe form, blood can back up into the lungs. That’s when heart failure develops.” The exercise program outlined here can prevent this stiffening or, if initiated before age 65, reverse stiffening from prior inactivity.

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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